- Associated Press - Saturday, May 3, 2014

GENEVA (AP) - Atletico Madrid’s stunning run to the Champions League final also signaled the arrival of another new player on European soccer’s biggest stages.

Atletico’s players will walk out to face Real Madrid - and an expected global television audience of 175 million - with “Azerbaijan Land of Fire” on their shirts in Lisbon on May 24.

For Azerbaijan, that’s a jackpot payoff for a sponsorship deal that’s part of a wide-ranging effort by the oil- and gas-rich former Soviet Union republic to become more visible to global soccer audiences.

Expect to see a lot more of it at future UEFA matches.

From Sept. 7, the name SOCAR (State Oil Company of Azerbaijan Republic) will feature on pitch-side advertising at most 2016 European Championship and 2018 World Cup qualifiers in Europe. Its brand will also appear at all 51 Euro 2016 matches in France after signing up as a top-tier sponsor with UEFA.

And Azerbaijan’s top aim could be achieved on Sept. 19 if UEFA chooses Baku among 13 host cities for Euro 2020.

“We think that will be the biggest target we can achieve for now,” Elkhan Mammadov, general secretary of the Association of Football Federations of Azerbaijan (AFFA) said in a telephone interview Friday.

Like Qatar before it, greater exposure for Azerbaijan from spending sovereign wealth to project a softer image through soccer will also bring more scrutiny. The country of 9.5 million people nestling next to the Caspian Sea, bordering Russia and Iran, has long been criticized by human rights and anti-censorship groups.

The long-term soccer project in Azerbaijan was requested by President Ilham Aliyev, who succeeded his father in 2003 and later abolished term limits.

“Football is important in the country and is supported by the government and by the president himself,” Mammadov said. “The president signed a decree order for the development of Azerbaijan football between 2005 and 2015 which covers development of the infrastructure, and youth and women’s football.”

The strategy delivered a first FIFA tournament, the Under-17 Women’s World Cup, in 2012. Jennifer Lopez and Shakira were brought to Baku to perform at the opening and closing ceremonies, respectively.

Azerbaijan will also host the European Under-17 Championship for UEFA in 2016. The main sponsor is SOCAR, whose president Rovnag Abdullayev also leads the soccer body and is a lawmaker in Aliyev’s government.

Announcing the wide-ranging SOCAR deal one year ago, UEFA marketing director Guy-Laurent Epstein pointed to the company’s “aim to become a global energy company.”

SOCAR’s retail operations include dozens of petrol stations in Switzerland, including one in Nyon near UEFA’s lakeside headquarters.

Though hosting low-key youth tournaments are partly investments in goodwill with FIFA and UEFA, the Atletico shirt deal signed midway through last season has paid off spectacularly.

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